We’ve heard it all in the 38 plus years we have been selling guitars at Northern Lights Music: “My guitar is like a cheese grater, it hurts my fingers!” or ”I have arthritis, I can’t play anymore.” How sad that one has to give up picking tunes because of aches and pains. Isn’t there anything a person can do to adapt to one’s current physical situation?
First thing to do when facing these sorts of obstacles is to determine whether you need a different sized guitar and something that’s easier to play. There is no reason to keep playing a big dreadnought when you have a shoulder issue or to wrap your hands around an uncomfortable neck when you can customize nut widths to fit your hand perfectly. We have had customers with shoulder issues who have chosen not only a smaller body size, but they have also treated their hands to a nylon string for ease of playing. Many builders these days choose to forgo 14 fret guitars in favor of easier to play 12 fret guitars, which are becoming increasingly popular. They have a shorter scale with the bridge moved further down to make a four fret reach easier. I especially enjoy Taylor’s 712e 12 fret. It’s comfortable on the lap, has great tone, and is gentle on my hands.
Taylor’s 712e 12 fret (front - Spruce) (back - Brazilian Rosewood)
Next, make sure you come in to Northern Lights and treat your guitar to a “spa treatment” on the workbench. We can check things out to determine whether you need a truss rod adjustment, lighter or softer strings, and whether the action is appropriate for ease of playing. We’ll also be truthful about whether we think you have a guitar that may be causing you physical problems and will make suggestions for a trade or other alternatives for purchase. We actually care about your comfort at Northern Lights Music.
So when it comes to sitting down to play, now that you have found a more practical instrument, you may want to take it slow when warming up. Do some stretching in your shoulders and arms. Lace your hands together and stretch your fingers out too. I am an active yoga person so I find that to be my tool for arm stretching, proper posture, and hand stretching.
My husband, Dan, has a really nifty device he uses to warm up before a gig. It’s almost like a crock-pot that holds therapeutic paraffin. He dips his hands in the solution about 10 times or so until he ends up with “Mickey Mouse” gloves and lets the wax soak deeply into his joints and muscles. As the glove cools and hardens, he’ll make a ball with the wax and while it’s still warm “plays” with the wax for a while like you would with Play Dough to limber up his guitar playing muscles. These are readily available at a pharmacy. It really feels great and sets you up for playing! http://www.therabathpro.com/about_paraffin_new.ph...
Are you getting back to playing after a long hiatus or just starting out on your journey and find you have tender fingertips? I won’t ask you to do what Stevie Ray Vaughn did with superglue and his epidermis! Start out slowly with your playing schedule. Your calluses will build up gradually, so be patient, and don’t skip a day of practice. Adapting for discomfort in your picking hand may include trying different fingerpicks or getting an actual trained guitarist to look at your playing style. Leo Kottke, after many years of playing and the onset of Tendonitis, consulted with a classical guitarist, adapted his technique, and threw out some of his picks. http://www.guitarmusic.org/kottke/ggpn87.html
Don’t forget that you are an artist who needs to protect your guitar-playing muscles! Watch out for twisting motions; for instance, use a power screwdriver instead of a manual one. And of course be careful if you are a luthier or carpenter using saws! And if you are a gypsy like Django Reinhardt, watch out for caravan fires, although he adapted quite well playing with his two fingers!
Never give up on making music. We are here to help, whether it is helping you ease into a different instrument or adjusting your current guitar to better suit your needs. Even if you have to start playing slide guitar because your fingers won’t move anymore, there is a way to keep the tunes flowing.